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The global sandwich revolution

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Sheila Dillon Sheila Dillon | 14:50 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

We now spend three billion a year on sandwiches and sales are up six per cent this year. Not bad for an industry that’s only been going in its ready-made, packed-in-a-box format for just over 30 years. Our busy, 'grab it and run' meal culture has made the sandwich even more ubiquitous. It’s now something (and I find this hard to grasp) that we eat for breakfast and supper as well as lunch, but as Bee Wilson (author of Sandwich: A Global History) said on this week’s Food Programme, so many sandwiches are just plain boring. There’s a cornucopia of choice as you face the chill cabinet, but when you open up the cheese thingy on granary, the prawn thingy on white or the chicken thingy on wholewheat, all of them glooped-up with mayonnaise, so many taste depressingly similar.

Boy with sandwiches

However the sandwich world is changing. The cheap sandwich will probably always be with us on the high street, but now there’s a new wave of fresh, delicious, culturally rich sandwiches being made in the capital. This new wave is influencing the big manufacturers making sandwiches for the high street chains and the big retailers.

There are five big sandwich manufacturers in the UK. We went to Buckingham Foods in Milton Keynes, owned, in a sign of the times, by the private equity firm Adelei Foods Group, to find out how they turn out a million sandwiches a week for Sainsbury’s. It’s a science: the sandwiches are made from precisely engineered (not GM!) tomatoes with the minimum of moisture, lollo rosso bred to develop small circles of leaves so that there’s nothing to chop, and enzyme-enhanced bread to retain freshness for up to three days. But beyond the lab and the production line the company's scouts are always on the prowl for new taste sensations they can adapt for the mass market.

And we don’t have to look far for inspiration. In the programme, Daniel Young of food blog Young and Foodish visited Broadway Market in East London to sample what many people think is the best Vietnamese Bánh mì in the UK.  Bánh mì (pronounced Bang Mee) is a relic of the French occupation of Vietnam – traditional baguettes filled with slow-cooked pork, herbs and pâté that had Daniel and food writer Richard Johnson in taste heaven. It’s sold by two city workers Anh and Van who were finalists in last month’s British Street Food Awards.
Plus there’s Sam Singh (another City boy in search of a new life through sandwiches) in Soho making moolis - Indian street-food sarnies based on rotis, which are made fresh every day in their roti-maker. Long-cooked goat is the big seller. Just a couple of tube stops toward the City brought Daniel to the Moo Grill, which turns out authentic lomitos from Argentina: a rich but not overwhelming mix of steak, egg, lettuce, tomato and ham in a soft, grilled bun. If I were going to eat sandwiches three times a day that’s the way to go. 

What’s your idea of the perfect sandwich filling? Are you a traditionalist or are you starting a revolution in your own lunchbox?

Shelia Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thin sliced Aberdeen Angus roasted fillet steak, a touch of aged balsamic vinegar, a slice of Parma ham and crushed watercress.

  • Comment number 2.

    I had a lovely fresh tomato sandwich for lunch - wholemeal bread and butter and the slices tomato just dressed with salt and pepper. Delicious! Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best ones for sandwiches.

  • Comment number 3.

    If I'm making it myself, juicy prawns, squeeeze of lemon, and mayo. If it's a sandwich bar something different every time!

  • Comment number 4.

    I got a taste for tomato sandwiches working part time in a pub as a student, salad and bread were the only comesitbles we were allowed to poach from the kitchen. At the other extreme, Christmas is perfect for packing as much as you can between two slices of bread, all those leftover cold cuts, sauces, stuffings and gravy - I like to sneak in the odd cold roast potato too.

  • Comment number 5.

    Filled roti is not just moolis - there's a very successful Jamaican business near me (Roti Stop London N16) selling filled rotis. Only thing is I can't eat them like a sandwich, I need a plate, knife & fork - or a new T-shirt after.

    Hard to beat a good cheese sandwich - my favourite sandwich bar in Sheffield does Wensleydale with onion marmalade. Mmmm...

  • Comment number 6.

    Greetings from Slow Food's Salone del Gusto in sunny Turin.

    I absolutely agree; my favourite sandwich filling is tomato on buttered white bread. Simple, but perfect.

  • Comment number 7.

    The "traditional" Argentinean lomito seems to be nothing more than a copy of the Uruguayan chivito. The one described in the programme sounded like a "chivito comun", my favourite is the "chivito canadiense" (literally translated as "little Canadian goat", which is a bit weird, as it's made with beef and there's nothing Canadian about it). In addition to the meat, lettuce, tomato and ham, it will have cheese, bacon, olives and egg (usually fried), and sometimes also pickled mushrooms and red pepers.

  • Comment number 8.

    The claim that Sandwiches were invented by Lord Sandwich is commonly assumed to be correct origin but in fact the Persians were making sandwiches, known as Loghmehs for well over two thousand years prior to then. Kurosh the Great (known as Cyrus the Great by the Greeks) fed his troops in the field with loghmehs made of pulped meat served between layers of bread in circa 600 BC and loghmehs were already an established food form in Persia well before then.
    (Note - Correct plural of loghmeh is loghmehan in Persian but this would have tended to confuse hence use of s for plural in above).


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